Folded Paper Butterfly:
IN DEEP NIGHT I DIG FOR YOU, oil, acrylic and inkjet on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, 2018
A Conversation with Tiko Kerr
by Tiziana La Melia
Artist / Writer
A few years ago, the painter Hanna Hur posted a picture on Instagram of a butterfly drinking a turtle’s tear. These symbiotic relationships interest me. When I am working on my own paintings, the anxieties in language sometimes make me forget that the pigment I push contains concentrated memory. The movement of paint is a movement of trade, insect, mineral. Paintings as abstractions of extractions, visible to the viewer as chemistried forms wherein the processes underlying the picture are present, include the non-painterly transferences that take place within human relationships. For example, a curator visiting my studio last summer sprayed the lavender mist I had on my table onto her arm; she said she liked it even though the interaction of lavender with her body oils produces the smell of cat pee. My sister, who spent consecutive weekends at HomeSense decorating a basement suite, is now nauseated by her choice of decor in relation to the morning (or all-day) sickness she experienced during her first trimester. Some painters talk about making a picture as a kind of birth. However you want to describe it, the problems a painter probably grapples with most is the relayof time and how to surrender to feeling.
In the below conversation with Tiko Kerr, whose studio I visited in January 2019, we talk about processes, resonances, stylistic ghosts, and the knotted temporalities behind his most recent work.
Tiziana La Melia: I notice there’s a portrait you did of Jack Shadbolt hanging at the entrance to your studio. You are described as an autodidact, but I wonder how you found yourself mentored by Shadbolt without moving through a formal art education?
Tiko Kerr: I met Jack in the mid 1990s, when I started donating work to fundraisers like Arts Umbrella’s auction for children’s arts programs. We both also holidayed on Hornby Island. One evening, years ago, he invited me to dinner with he and Doris, and we were friends ever since. We spent a lot of time on Hornby at their place on Harbour View. He wrote an encouraging and wonderful letter to me one day that I still cherish. Our friendship continued until Jack passed away, in 1998, after which I became close to his wife, Doris. She invited me to work in his studio, where I found hundreds of drawings and works that I spent two years inventorying to get the estate in order. The furniture and sculptures in here are Jack’s. His presence is everywhere. Obviously that has a deep psychological effect on me.
TL: I’ve never had a mentor like that, but it seems that Vancouver’s art history is full of these kinds of interactions. What does it mean to have a mentor?
TK: A mentor is someone who will take the time to look at your work and hopefully see promise in it, and then express that, so you are encouraged.
TL: It strikes me as something that has to do with class, with the privilege of moving through spaces not so accessible or comfortable to everyone.
TL: Before meeting you, I revisited the exhibition catalogue Paint: A Psychedelic Primer, from a 2006 survey exhibition of painting at the Vancouver Art Gallery, curated by Neil Campbell. In Scott Watson’s essay “Transmission Difficulties,”Shadbolt enters the text as a senior figure in a regional “scene with no scene.”Watson talks about this British and particularly Scottish lineage of the Vancouver scene, which seems to define how artwork is collected here—tethered to postwar pastiche modernist narratives and subjectivities that continue to be celebrated in local museum collections. A painting like Sea of Tranquility (2017) is reminiscent of a Lawren Harris compositionally, but predominantly more like a cubist work by Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso. How do you find yourself connecting to this aesthetic?
TK: As you know, we are all devouring images our entire lives. I have always been attracted to modernist painting, prior to colour field works, and all that. Presently, the work I’m doing references Braque. I’m looking at artists who dealt with the same social and political issues that we are dealing with now, during the time of cubism, such as the rise of fascism and nationalism. Because we are going through these things now, I’m looking at the mark making of that period. I am wondering how they approached the canvas, about the physical marks they made, and if they made works that somehow translated human experiences. There was a particular colour sensibility with the cubists. I’m using all the earth-tone oils I inherited from Jack.
TL: The ochres and burnt umbers recall early analytic cubism, and maybe it’s a stretch, but the palette also summons Shadbolt’s butterfly paintings. Perhaps it’s because of how he scales up the wings in the paintings , making the insect enormous, similar to how you have scaled up the painted collages. And the butterfly, with its eyespots and colour flashes also resonate with pareidolia, the phenomenon of seeing faces in inanimate objects even when they are not there, which is something that fascinates you and other artists in the city.
Were the butterfly paintings something Shadbolt worked on throughout his entire life?
TK: Yes. He stumbled onto them through collage, which he used to do a lot of. His process was unlike the way I’m working, which is by subtraction: I remove the unnecessary context to release the form. Jack, by contrast,would use high-end French fashion magazines that people gave him and, through addition, paint out the negative space in order to reveal a form. Getting back to pareidolia: I look for the forms that trigger psychological meaning, whether it’s a garbed person or a structure—absolutely anything .The subjects of a lot of Jack’s compositions took the form of creatures from the natural world, whereas mine tend more to be individuals participating in a human drama.
Jack was always drawn to the transformative nature of the life of the butterfly—its dramatic physical transformation. And that’s what creativity is about: a preoccupation with metamorphosis and transformation.
TL: The curator of Reframed, Meredith Preuss, told me that the psychedelic wobbles in your earlier landscape paintings are a record of your astigmatism. Is this true?
TK: I have astigmatism in two directions, and my right eye sees only black
and white. I’ve always used this vision condition of mine to create my works. What’s really interesting is with my other eye, I get complementary colours, so I look at blue, but then I get a little bit of an orange halo. It’s this kind of prismatic relationship with colour that I incorporated into those works, and then the wobble just happened because I see the world that way. And I actually believe in this kind of spiritual way that all objects have spirit to them—you know, things kind of slump and sit and sag in their own individual ways.
TL: Your description of this spirit, of dissolving edges, perhaps connects to the political subjects you have touched on over the years. I can see the joy in how you move paint around, which makes me wonder: How do you feel about the space of beauty or pleasure in relation to the ugly?
TK: I think about this all the time when I am working. I really feel that when you catch people’s attention or maybe even give them a little awe, that it triggers their humanity, and allows them to pause. I am really drawn into that moment when someone is facing a work of art and, before they make any kind of value judgment, they are completely open and their mind is completely clear of internal dialogue. That’s actually what I am trying to do with my current work: to give a moment of an uncluttered mind. I put a lot of feeling into the work. I’m drawn to the idea that seeing can become feeling, and I aim to achieve that all the time—that moment where people can find some sort of nourishment, for lack of a better word.
TL: Why is it you are making reference to Picasso in your works right now, more than a hundred years after the cubism movement? (Even if such references are perhaps a tiny portion of your practice.) Even prior to the current resurgence (does it ever go away!) of Picasso mania, which includes National Geographic’s TV series Genius: Picasso (2018), I have noticed that prominent art historians such as Rosalind Krauss and T. J. Clark have moments in relatively recent books on Picasso where they seem eager to justify the writing of another book on the subject.
TK: I’ve always revered Picasso, merely because of the amount of work he made. He had a kind of life where during breakfast, while he was drawing, someone was preparing etching plates for him, which he then etched over lunchtime. Meanwhile, ceramics were being prepped that he’d glaze in his free time. What a dream come true! That’s what I aspire to, and not so much his imagery, as I actually dislike a lot of his work, especially the later figurative, Willem de Kooning–style women.
TL: In Clark’s book, he says, “The most referenced artists of the twentieth century lived instinctively within the limits of bourgeois society, but that they felt this society was coming to an end—and that is where their art took a regressive form.”I guess today we are also living in a kind of middle-class or bourgeois period that is experiencing a shift, alongside all the other ecological and political transformations and returns.
TK: Yes, I’m really interested in that dynamic between what was happening then and what is happening now, and putting them into conversation.
TL: Is collage and the source material for your more recent works part of your process for examining this dynamic in the present?
TK: I’m looking for source material that speaks to me, that has a kind of familiarity to it. I inherited Doris and Jack’s library when she passed away, and I ended up with duplicates of art history books, so I actually felt I was free to liberate a lot of those images. Jack and Doris lived in a certain period, so a lot of the art references are from that period. Somehow, I started to use those images. It’s been exciting for me to draw with scissors. Liberating these images from the page feels wonderfully dangerous, because you can’t go back. It’s a commitment to go forward, working automatically.
TL: Many other artists have inherited collections of material that they then incorporate into their work, perhaps adding to the intensity and mythology of an artwork. I’m reminded of Geoffrey Farmer’s installation Leaves of Grass (2012), which he titled after the Walt Whitman poetry collection. The epic sculpture was created by attempting to cut out every image from nine hundred copies of LIFE magazine that came from the Morris/Trasov Archive, kept by the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver.
Your gestures seem committed to documenting fragility, both of the disappearing built environment and at other times of the body, memory, and perception. Collage is interesting historically as far as Braque and cubism for its attempt to describe objects from multiple perspectives, which represented them as fragmented and unfolding and lively. Your current work is a dramatic shift from the wobbly landscape you are known for, which referenced Vancouver directly. Can you describe this categorical break with the rest of your oeuvre, and what made you move out of the way you were previously working?
TK: I was diagnosed with cancer after my HIV went into remission, and one month before my surgery, I came to the studio and said, “Fuck this, I need to change.” I just went ahead and started cutting the magazines, started to paint abstractions. It really liberated me, because I’m known for a particular kind of work that was landscape based.
Collage is a spontaneous activity—trying to find the affinities between things, whether colour continues from one piece of paper to another, or a shape or a line, just trying to find the relationships. It really puzzles the mind, or confounds it, so when you look at something, you actually don’t know what you’re looking at. I like that very much—I like looking at things where I don’t know what’s going on.
TL: It looks like many of the works are being painted on top of former landscape paintings.
TK: Yes, and actually this is kind of a homage to Braque. I had an epiphany years ago at the Tate Britain in London, where I saw a series of studio paintings by Braque titled I, II, III, IV, V, VI made from 1949 to 1956. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with them, actually, until I realized: he used to hang mirrors in his studio, then paint the reflections of other works as new works. Braque’s approach influenced me to use collage as a way to get to new imagery. For example, in my painting Table of Solace (2018), there are fragments of Henri Matisse in there—part of a railing overlooking a city—and I try to paint the collages as collages.Some of the bigger ones have a drop shadow painted in, and so you really get a feeling of collage.
TL: That reminds me of something I was thinking about while looking at the books you use for collage material. You are working with all this “free” material, these images that come from printed matter that was handed down to you, and you are recycling it into your own works. Yet because the subjects come from a specific art historical canon represented by these books, you end up in a loop of continuously referencing certain figures, like Picasso and Braque, which, while they made valuable contributions, must feel odd to keep going back to. On the one hand, you could say that this is a testament to the canon’s dominance, but on the other hand, I wonder about all the other people who are not in these books, but rather in the background or margins, or forgotten altogether—such as women, people of colour, queer people—and the power that is continuously returned to the canonical figures as a result.
TK: Absolutely. It’s such a crapshoot as far as who gets written into the books, and it’s dominated by white males.
TL: Do you consider your identity as a gay man to shift the readings of your work?
TK: Yes, I kind of do think it affects how my work is interpreted. Being queer, having such a different experience from Picasso’s machismo—I think about that a lot.
TL: I wonder about this in my own practice as well, because in the past I also have referenced Picasso, almost accidentally ...
TK: Well, he casts such a huge shadow.
TL: Yes, we are shadowed by someone who did everything. It seems like as soon as you move into abstraction as a painter, you will inevitably have Picasso moments.
TK: Yes, I get that all the time.
TL: Whether you want to or not.
TK: Exactly—and I don’t, actually!
The artist Ella Dawn McGeough used this term in a recent interview on the Overly Dedicatedartist podcast. The idea of “relay” is not dissimilar to symbiosis, but is instead in relation to passing down histories, enthusiasm, doors, and invitations to chairs at tables. Ella Dawn McGeough, in “Episode 28 – Ella Dawn McGeough,” hosted by Claire Scherzinger, February 4, 2019, Overly Dedicated, podcast, MP3 audio, 1:00:08, http://www.overlydedicatedpodcast.ca/e/episode-28-ella-dawn-mcgeough.
Shadbolt is described as belonging to a group of Vancouver artists who “dominat[ed] the small regional art world through their example and activism” in the 1950s. Scott Watson, “Transmission Difficulties: Vancouver Painting in the 1960s,” in Paint: A Psychedelic Primer, ed.Monika Szewczyk, exhibition catalogue (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2006), 15.
T. J. Clark, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 18.